Born in Bucyrus, Ohio, Harper received a B.S. degree in 1966 and the following year an M.S. in education from Case Western Reserve University. He also studied advanced enameling at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Harper began his career as an abstract painter but in the early 1960's switched to enameling to acheive more intense colors. Fascinated by the supernatural aura of ritual objects such as amulets, charms, and tribal power figures, in the early 1970s he began to produce brightly enameled necklaces and brooches in gold, silver, and gemstones, as well as nonprecious and found objects that evoke a similar and mysterious power. Many of his recent pieces are mythical and ironic self-portraits that suggest intense introspection.
Harper was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1978 and NEA grants in 1979 and 1980. In 1980 and 1985 he received fellowhsips from the Florida Arts Council.
Kenneth R. Trapp and Howard Risatti Skilled Work: American Craft in the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998)
William Harper suffers from chronic migraine headaches, and uses his recovery period to conceptualize his pieces. Because of his condition, he chooses to focus on the idea behind a piece rather than its method of production. He says, “I have tried to avoid all metalsmithing trends in contemporary terms. I do what I want to do. My work is a natural progression of conceptualization with materials.” His work is inspired by found objects, magic, and ancient tribal cultures, which he approaches, in his own words, like “a wizard, a sorcerer . . . and alchemist.”